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Barack Obama at Frontiers Conference
President Barack Obama speaking the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh. Photo: White House.

It’s a comment we hear all the time: Government should run more like a startup, to be more agile, efficient and timely.

But President Obama doesn’t see it that way. Speaking at the White House Frontiers Conference, Obama said Washington D.C. will never run like Silicon Valley, because the government fundamentally can’t operate like a business would.

Instead of being accountable to investors and customers, like a startup, Obama pointed out that the government is accountable to a huge variety of populations in the U.S., with a huge variety of needs and values.

“And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up,” he said.

Obama said the sentiment in the science, tech, and entrepreneur communities — that the entire system needs to be overhauled and built again — is misguided. The system isn’t broken, the two modes are just playing by different rules, he said.

He did agree that there are improvements to be made to the way government runs. But, for now, the vision of more agile, pivoting government and a rooftop dog park on the White House remain a pipe dream.

Read Obama’s pertinent comments in full below, and the full transcript here.

The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy.  This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view.  And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.

So sometimes I talk to CEOs, they come in and they start telling me about leadership, and here’s how we do things.  And I say, well, if all I was doing was making a widget or producing an app, and I didn’t have to worry about whether poor people could afford the widget, or I didn’t have to worry about whether the app had some unintended consequences — setting aside my Syria and Yemen portfolio — then I think those suggestions are terrific… That’s not, by the way, to say that there aren’t huge efficiencies and improvements that have to be made.

But the reason I say this is sometimes we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the entrepreneurial community, the sense of we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture because government is inherently wrecked.  No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet, because we have a sacred duty to take care of those veterans.  And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up.

Previously on GeekWire: Obama goes into full (and feisty) geek mode at White House Frontiers Conference

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